Beating the hell out of convention
At a pandal this Ganeshotsav, you may just bump into Archana Deshmukh, India's first and only female musician who plays male-dominated rhythm instruments � the tabla, dholki and congo, finds Nivedita Dargalkar
Today, 26 year-old musician Archana Deshmukh, who plays the tabla, dholki and congo, may have found her place in the male-dominated music scene, but it definitely didn’t come easy.
“I had to battle severe family opposition for my rather unusual career choice,” says Deshmukh, who claims to be the first and the only female musician in the country who plays the three rhythm instruments.
Deshmukh’s introduction to music happened by sheer chance. In 1992, as a seven year-old, she visited her then neighbours, Krishna and Anandi Khot, for a devotional music recital at their home. As the musicians played songs, Deshmukh began tapping her fingers to the beat and rhythm.
The Khots immediately realised that the child was gifted to be able to identify the melody so well. They gave her a dimadi (a rhythm ) to play, and explained the basics of the instrument to her. To their surprise, Deshmukh promptly picked up the notes and assisted the musicians in their performance that evening.
“The Khots then approached my parents and requested that someone teach me rhythm instruments such as the tabla, congo and dholki professionally. But my parents came from an orthodox family background and flatly refused,” says Deshmukh.
A hidden music
That, however, did not stop Deshmukh from pursuing her musical journey. For the next two years, Deshmukh practised playing these instruments with the Khots. “I hid the fact from my parents for fear of their disapproval,” she recalls. Soon after, Deshmukh’s parents found out about her secret practice sessions and prohibited her from practising music.
Deshmukh did not give up. After she passed her SSC examination in 2002, she urged her parents to let her learn the instruments and insisted that music alone was her true calling. Her parents reluctantly agreed to send her to a music teacher. “That’s when, at the age of 16, I formally learnt the basics of the tabla and dholki from my guruji, Pramod Parkar,” she recalls.
Lure of Lavani
Unfortunately, yet again, she ran into opposition. Relatives soon began pressurising her parents against her choice of musical instruments and her parents eventually forced her to stop training. They refused to pay her fee, too.
“Dholki is an integral part of a Lavani performance, but the dance form is wrongly synonymous with eroticism alone. To top that, the dholki is largely played by men during Lavani. My parents feared that society will not accept a girl playing it,” says Deshmukh.
However, Parkar stood by Deshmukh in this time of crisis. “Parkar guruji showed immense faith in me and my talent. He continued teaching me the dholki for the next two years after that but didn’t charge a penny,” says a grateful Deshmukh. She then went on to learn advanced music under her guru, Chandrakant Chaudhary. In 2004, when she was a Class 12 student, Deshmukh became a member of a female band, Swaranjali.
“As a last resort to convince my parents, I requested them to come and watch our band’s first performance at Gadkari Rangayatan auditorium in Thane.I was supposed to play the dholki for a famous lavani song sung by Asha Bhosle,” says Deshmukh. Luckily for Deshmukh, the performance was a success and applause came in from all quarters of the auditorium. Seeing the audience’s appreciation for Deshmukh’s skill, her parents realised her love for the art form.
The next nine years were a struggle for Deshmukh, who performed at various stage shows and played with different bands. In 2008, she was awarded the Thane Gaurav award of the Outstanding Female Musician by the then Mumbai mayor, Smita Indulkar. In 2009, Deshmukh was also felicitated by the then President Pratibha Patil and Vilasrao Deshmukh for her contribution to music.
Today, things have changed for Deshmukh — her parents now encourage her to pursue her study of music. Her schedule has little space for anything except music performances and the artiste is completely booked for the upcoming Ganesh festival and will play at various pandals across the city. So, what does she have to say for girls who want to play the tabla and dholki?
“Only men have played these rhythm instruments for a long time — it is time women took them up, too. That is the only way the stigma attached to playing these instruments will be wiped out from society,” she feels.